Exchange with choir from the Czech Republic

In the spring of 1993 Aalborghus Choir hosted a choir from the Czech Republic (name withheld for personal reasons), and later that spring we reciprocated the visit. The idea of an exchange came about when the headmistresses of our two schools met at a conference concerning another international school project.

The trip was an extraordinary experience, mostly because the new republic still showed signs of its former political system, not least in the school we visited.  As is our usual practice when exchanging with other schools, we did not only get the benefit of staying in private homes, we also saw the school system from within - an experience that invariably makes us appreciate our own system the more.

At the time my daughter was a member of the school choir and partook in the trip, so I have no reason to disbelieve the unanimous accounts I heard from students: that most of the Czech teachers treated their students in an almost humiliating fashion, calling them names and scorning their characters publicly.  None of this was provoked, it just seemed to be the usual way of a (non-existent) student-teacher relationship.

My own experiences in the teachers' lounge were less revealing, but from my conversations with other teachers I did get the impression that science, not the humanities, was top of the agenda.  (One of the reasons is that science is vital for the development of a country whereas the humanities may lead to an unwanted discussion af values.  This impression was later confirmed when I visited another former Communist country, Latvia, in 1998.)

Once our host choir took us on a beautiful trip to the mountains of the tri-state Polish-Czech-Slovakian border triangle, and because of some unforeseen trouble with the tour bus and our schedules we barely made it back to town to be ready for our concert that evening, arriving in the nick of time and with no time to change clothes.  Our host conductor made a quick introduction, and we took over and performed well considering the odds - young people don't feel the nervous anxiety that grown-ups may feel, and they seem to have inexhaustible resources of energy.
   To my surprise the Czech Deputy Head of school didn't look happy at all, and in the interval I heard him heaping abuse on our host conductor for not dressing up to the occasion (even if he was just doing the introduction).  A small thing, perhaps, but still indicative of the difference between the authoritarian attitude expressed by people in command in the Czech Republic and in Denmark.  Here we would never put up with anything but an assessment of our professional conduct.  Although the Czech Republic was striving to go back to western values, old habits die hard.

Before WW2 Czechoslovakia was No. six in Europe in terms of GNP, and my (very attentive and most hospitable) host told me that he believed that they'd be back in that position within ten years.  I didn't believe him at the time, but later years have shown that the Czechs are on their way, moving fast.  Even while we were visiting we could see the difference: new buildings and shops were sprouting as were sidewalk cafés, western style.  Apparently, some 40 years of Communism hasn't stifled the old Czech traditions of craftsmanship.
   More serious is the fact that in terms of European emissions of greenhouse-gasses per capita the Czech Republic tops the list with double the amount of countries like Italy, Spain, and France, even more than Germany, the UK, and Russia.  So, at least part of the the present economic rise is at the expense of the environment.

We gave a total of three concerts (in addition to other, more spontaneous concerts in Prague, e.g. on the famous bridge between the city and the castle), and our repertoire of both classical European music and American traditionals and gospel was received with enthusiasm.
   After an evening concert one parent approached me with an interpreter by his side.  He wanted to express his sincere thanks for "everything you do for the young people" and presented me with a bottle of the local "moonshine" - his very best own distillate.

Beer is, if not a Czech invention then at least a household thing.  The local beer is good and cheap, but on our way back to Denmark we passed through Prague and had to realize that the capital and the countryside are two different things: not only would the waiters sooner sell us the imported, more expensive, but not necessarily better beer - the price was often several times what we had been used to paying.  In other words: Prague is not typical of the Czech republic (se the P.S. after the article).

Nor was Slovakia like the Czech Republic.  We were staying near the new Slovakian border - the two states had been formally separated from January 1993 - and talked to many people who had (had) business in both countries.  Even without our asking they volunteered information about the cultural exchange between the two republics before the separation: since the main center for education was and always had been Prague, everybody in charge of almost anything in Slovakia had been educated in Prague and most often a native Czech, so a massive cultural imperialism from Prague had been felt for centuries.  This wasn't the only or the main reason for the secession, of course, but it brought matters down to earth to a level which could be understood by everybody.

March 2001
Erik Moldrup

Addendum: A few months after our visit to the Czech Republic we got a local phone call one night from a boy who sang in the Czech choir - he had hitchhiked all the way to Denmark.  Here he was without any luggage or return ticket and no place to stay.  Naturally, we hosted him for some days and then helped him go back.

P.S. Prague
On another trip to Prague with the family we were arrested by a traffic inspector who fined us for not having stamped our streetcar tickets immediately on entering (you buy these tickets in tobacco shops).  Since we had been obstructed by a large woman when entering and thus barely made it to the streetcar, and since we were only a few seconds late in stamping them before the traffic inspector approached us, and since we were in for rather a long ride with plenty of time to stamp our tickets, and since the man couldn't show us sufficient proof that he was, in fact, a traffic inspector and not a con artist - I told him that we would pay no such fine.  If he wanted to, he could arrest us - no less.

(One other reason was that we had been tricked into paying a large sum of money for a cup of cappuccino in the main square.  The price charged was almost four times the price advertised on the tables, and we were not the only ones complaining.  The waiter told us a story about a special "tax" added when the music was playing (we thought they were street musicians which they probably were), but instead of refusing to pay, I paid the charge providing I could have a specified bill as proof of the robbery.
   The waiter did write a receipt, but wouldn't put down anything else but "drinks" which of course could be anything and thus didn't prove anything.
   This was not the first time we'd been had in Prague, so when we were accosted in the streetcar, I almost blew my top; and if we could be taken to see the police, I foolishly hoped that we could persuade them to look into the business with the waiter and thus get back at him.
   Well, the traffic officer and we got off at the main central station, went down the few steps to the subway and rang the bell to a steel door under the sign "Police".  After a few minutes a grating voice announced something over the loudspeaker above the door, and the traffic officer told us that there was no police present at the moment, but they'd asked us to wait for them.
   We waited for a good many minutes and nothing happened.  The traffic officer then pushed another button and said, "Now I've asked them to hurry - that'll cost you doubly."
  I retorted, "How can they charge us for being arrested," but he just smiled back (I started wondering if he was working on a commission).
  The minutes passed, and still nothing happened.  As time went by, we started talking about other things, too - after all, he did have a point in fining us since it was posted clearly that all passengers must stamp their tickets immediately on entering the streetcar, but I thought we could talk us out of it as they couldn't prove any harmful intent.  So, when talking to him I was trying to play the part of the innocent victim who had nothing to fear.  Besides, we didn't hate the man as a person.

We exchanged cigarettes, and to make sure that he didn't mistake us for Germans (always a wise move when traveling in Eastern Europe) I found an excuse to have a look at my passport, but Vibeke was the one who had the nerve to break the spell.
   She simply told him, "Well, it's been nice talking to you, but we can't stay here any longer.  We've got to move on," and with that we turned around and went up the stairs.  Once up at street level we each grabbed a child (yes, Jonas and Jakob were with us all along) and ran as quickly as we could to the bus that would take us downtown again.